Japan wrestles with future of its pacifist constitution ahead of election Sunday

People on Japan's political left have begun to worry about the right stirring up fears of war, the better to re-militarize and make changes to the country's pacifist constitution.

Since WWII, country has kept its military under strict control: could that be about to change?

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe campaigns in Tokyo Wednesday for the lower house election scheduled for Sunday. (Shizuo Kambayashi/Associated Press)

In what's considered by many to be the safest major city in the world, Maki Mitome worries about war.

Mitome's fears aren't about a direct threat to Tokyo, not even from Japan's belligerent neighbour North Korea. The 65-year-old fears her country's conservatives are stirring up fear about war among Japanese people for political ends.

"I'm afraid to go back to the life before the Second World War," she says.

She's not the only one. Mitome is one of about three dozen people from Japan's political left who have shown up in a windowless meeting room in Tokyo to talk strategy for the general election on Sunday.

A key issue as Japanese people head to the ballot box is whether the country should modify its pacifist constitution.

Proponents, like the frontrunner and current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, say they want to end debate over the constitutionality of the country's de facto armed forces by specifically spelling out their role.

Maki Mitome says she fears amending Japan's constitution will mark a return to its militaristic past. (Angela Johnston/CBC)

They are not included in the constitution, which effectively neuters Japan's military power. Critics fear constitutional change could catalyze a return to Japan's militaristic past.

"We don't use our military power to protect ourselves, we used the military power to invade other countries, always," Mitome says, highlighting Japan's bloody history in the 1930s and 40s. As it partnered with the Nazis, Japan used the guise of liberating Asia from colonial powers to take over countries from Malaysia to China.

"I don't want a changed constitution to be handed to our children's generation," adds Oshiro Motoko, another meeting participant, echoing the view of many who cherish the document as a central part of Japan's identity.

Oshiro Motoko says she believes Abe's government is using the North Korean nuclear crisis for political gain. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

The constitution came into effect during the U.S. occupation after the end of the Second World War. It has been a sore point for some, including the political dynasty of Abe's family.

Noboru Yamaguchi, a professor at the International University of Japan and a retired lieutenant-general with Japan's Self-Defence Forces, says it is important for Japanese people to take more ownership of the constitution and adapt to a changing world.

He also says it is time for the country to go through the amendment process, even aside from the military issue.

"We have sort of proven what the post-Second World War Japan is for the last 70-plus years," he says of fears that the country will become more militaristic.

Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan, says Abe is using the North Korean missile threat to advance his security agenda. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

"We should be more confident."

The threshold for amendment is high: it requires a two-thirds majority in both of its parliamentary houses, as well as a national referendum. Those numbers already effectively exist in the Upper House.

Yamaguchi says Abe could seize upon a rare opportunity for change if he gets the needed numbers in the Lower House.

Abe has consistently pursued a national security agenda during his almost five years in power, according to Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Tokyo's Sophia University.

Abe's government has argued Japan faces various threats and that enhancing its abilities will strengthen the country's alliance with the U.S., on which it relies heavily for defence.

Political science professor Koichi Nakano says Abe has used the North Korean issue to underscore the strength of his leadership. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

Two years ago, the government loosened some restrictions on the role of its Self-Defence Forces. It recently passed a divisive anti-conspiracy law criminalizing the plotting of hundreds of crimes, from terrorism to picking mushrooms in certain areas.

Abe's government justified the move by highlighting security concerns ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but critics have raised questions over civil liberties.

"It's been sort of a persistent tug-of-war," says Nakano of the constitutional revision issue. "Mr. Abe wanting to pull the country in one direction, and the relative majority of the Japanese not being so sure that is the right direction."

Abe's government also wants to add an emergency measure into the constitution, to be enacted during times of war, terrorist attacks or natural disasters. It has not said what powers the measure would give the government.

Nakano notes there are parallels with Japan's pre-war context, when the government used a peace preservation law to crack down on critics.

"The pacifist constitution remains very important symbolically to the Japanese people," says Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University's Japan campus.

"It smacks of authoritarianism and I think a lot of Japanese people are … cognizant of what happened back in the '30s and '40s and worried something bad might happen," adds Kingston.

For much of the summer, Abe shifted his focus to defending himself against a number of influence-peddling scandals as his support levels tanked to historic lows.

Front and centre

Then came North Korea.

On top of increasingly powerful nuclear tests, North Korea blasted two missiles over northern Japan, putting the threat front and centre in the minds of Japanese people.

"Kim Jong-un's series of missile tests have rescued Abe," says Kingston, referring to the North's young leader.

The crisis, says Nakano, is "ironically an opportunity for (Abe) to show his leadership and to show his tough position and to try to rally the country behind him."

So Abe quickly propelled the country into an election a year before he had to.

Massive protests

Nakano sees the future going one of two ways.

"The conservative turn would only go further and further and lead to the end of liberal democracy in Japan as we know it," he says. "[But] it's also possible that the democratic renewal is going to prevail over time."

If Japanese people feel like their views are not being appropriately represented, Nakano predicts people might mount massive protests.

Perhaps Mitome will be there alongside them.

"I have to do something," she says.

She sees it as her duty to stand up against any perceived threats to freedom.

"Most of people in Japan are not so resistant people," she says, at times breaking into Japanese to search for the right word.

"So they are not so sensitive about the … dangerous aspect of Abe, because most of people don't want to resist."